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Xian Ren Qiao – a natural bridge spotted on Google Earth turns out to be the world’s largest so far

It came as a pleasant surprise when Jay Wilbur, of Natural Arch and Bridge Society (NABS), spotted on Google Earth what looked like a massive natural bridge spanning over a river. They discovered immediately, thanks to a Panoramio photo, that the bridge was a local tourist spot in China called Xian Ren Qiao. To explore further they decided to embark on a journey to find out more. On October 16, 2010 Ray Millar led a group from NABS to visit this Fairy Bridge.

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World’s largest natural bridge
Image source: www.naturalarches.org

The bridge is called Xian Ren Qiao in Chinese, meaning “Immortal-People Bridge” connecting Earth with heaven.

Fairy Bridge from downstream
Image source: www.naturalarches.org

Until the visit from NABS the bridge was virtually unknown to the world outside China as a possible tourist destination. It was only a local attraction and they were the first from the western world to visit it. Made of limestone karst, the bridge has the largest span followed by two more as well, Jiangzhou Bridge and Zhijin Bridge, from China.

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The only way to reach the bridge is by using bamboo or inflatable rafts along the river Buliu.

Underneath Fairy Bridge
Image source: www.naturalarches.org

The bridge is located in a very remote area. Ray Millar and his friends first reached the village of Buliu. The village is over a beautifully flattened valley in between the ridges of Buliu River Gorge in Guanxi Autonomous Region. The river runs along the gorge across  is a bridge to the village.

From the village, which is on the upstream side of the bridge, they were able to find a boatman who took them to the bridge on an inflatable rubber raft down the river. When they finally arrived they were greeted by a stunning landscape. The bridge was surrounded by wild greenery and the slightly twisted arch of the limestone karst was a sight to behold.

After travelling a little further, they reached a landing area. The landing area also serves as another starting point for a trip up the river on bamboo rafts. Some of the bamboo rafts are fixed with wooden chairs for the convenience of visitors.

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The opening of the bridge spans about 400 feet (138 meters) across the river and is the longest span by wide margin as yet.

Measurement of Fairy Bridge
Image source: www.naturalarches.org

Gunter Welz, one of the group members, measured the distance using laser rangefinders. To their delight they discovered that the bridge, in fact, has the largest span of all the natural bridges in the world. Since they were measuring the opening from a boat and no precise equipment was available they allowed for an error of 15 feet give or take. He also measured the height of the opening to be 230 feet.

Xian Ren Qiao is a meander natural bridge created by the erosion and collapsing of a limestone rock.

Under Xian Ren Qiao
Image source: www.naturalarches.org

Meander natural bridges are characterized by semicircular opening or aperture in a huge tall rock with an active water stream. Along with water erosion collapses of the rock’s wall are also an important factor in the formation of these arches. The collapse occurs due to gravity and thermal flexing that force a recess formation at the base in the rock. The flow of water then adds to these forces creating an aperture through it. The Fairy Bridge was also created in a similar fashion with the help of river Buliu.

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